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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching 
Practice: A Research Case Study 


Utilizando los Resultados de la EvaluaciGn para Mejorar las 
PrActicas de Ensenanza: Un Caso de Estudio 


A Usando os Resultados da Avaliacao para Melhorar as PrAticas 
PedagGgicas: Um Estudo de Caso 


Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E Stake 


Revista Iberoamericana de Evaluacion Educativa 2012 - Volumen 5, Numero 2 


http://www.rinace.net/riee/numeros/vol5-num2/art3.pdf 


Fecha de recepcion: 02 de febrero de 2012 

Fecha de dictaminacion: N/A 

Fecha de aceptacion: 1 6 de abril de 201 2 


Revista^^ Iberoamericana 

de Evaluacion ^^Educativa 


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aV I 

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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
Study 

Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert £ Stake 


substantial body of research has been conducted on the use of student evaluations of college teaching. 
This research has mainly centered on the dimensionality, validity, reliability and generalizability of the 
ratings, and the study of possible biasing factors that could affect the validity of the ratings (Marsh, 1 984; 
Braskamp & Ory, 1994; El-Hassan, 1995). Only a limited number of studies have been conducted on the 
longitudinal use of student ratings and their possible influence on instructional improvement. 

This research case study is committed to that purpose. This is a case study of a senior professor in a public 
research university in the Midwest. The study traces how the instructor uses the feedback from peers, his 
department head and students. The research is an attempt to better understand the evaluation results as 
feedback for instructional improvement. 


1 . Conceptual framework 


Other research has shown mixed evidence about the possible effects of the feedback from student's 
ratings for improving teaching. Cohen (1991) has supported the potential use of the ratings for 
instructional improvement and other authors (Miller, 1987; Roush, 1983) found a high positive effect of 
the ratings on instructional improvement when accompanied by consultation. 

Still other findings have shown only minor or limited impact of the ratings on instructional improvement 
when measured over time (Gray & Brandeburg, 1985). As Brinko (1996) mentions, while some studies 
have affirm that the feedback from student ratings is valid and reliable, the research showed only a 
marginal effect of the ratings when used alone. More research seems to be needed on how the faculty 
uses feedback from student ratings. In addition, future studies could look at the benefits and trade-offs 
when using the feedback provided for the ratings. 


2. Issues 


The main issues that guided the study were: 

a) Good teaching. In what ways is professor perception of good teaching conflicting or overlapping 
with the department's perceived definition of good teaching? What happens if the professor has 
a different teaching philosophy from that adopted in his Department? 

b) Sources of feedback. If the professor is using more than one source, such as external observers or 
peers, to receive feedback about his/her teaching, has the use of feedback from the external 
observer provided the instructor with similar or conflicting information from that provided by 
student ratings and other sources? 

c) Influence of the feedback. In what ways did feedback from the ratings or other sources influence 
instructor decisions regarding classroom activities? 

d) Homogeneity. Does the department emphasis on homogeneity instead of individuality raise 
issues regarding the academic freedom of the faculty members? 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


3. Methodology 


This study portrays how a male instructor, his peers, and the department head used feedback from 
student ratings 1 . A case study approach was employed to provide a holistic mode of inquiry that would be 
consonant with the exploration of issues addressed by the study. The method selected provided 
understanding of the process and events taking place and the complexities of the context under which 
the evaluation was conducted (Patton, 1980). 

The case study was organized around main questions or issues (Stake et al, 1995). The criteria for 
selecting the professor and his course was not so much "What course and faculty member represents the 
totality of the instructors and disciplines taught in this university?" but more "What instructor would help 
us to understand the use of student feedback and its impact on teaching?" The professor was also 
selected because of his desire to continue improving his instruction. 

The case was an anonymized George Aldermen, a senior professor who had been receiving low to 
moderate ratings in recent years. He had used consultation services within the Division of Instructional 
Development on campus. He was teaching math-related courses required for engineering students. The 
students who attend his course were undergraduates in their junior or senior year. 

Data were collected over a period of two semesters through classroom observations and semi-structured 
and open-ended interviews with the faculty member, with other instructors in their Department who 
teach the same course, and with the Department Head. Classroom observations provided an 
understanding of the teaching styles, classroom techniques and interactions between the instructor and 
the students. The professor was later asked how the feedback from the ratings had influenced activities 
taking place in the classroom. Interviews with the professor and Department Heads were centered on the 
four issues cited. Each of these interviews was conducted in the instructor's private office. Each interview 
lasted from twenty minutes to an hour. Student ratings and evaluation forms and a variety of 
documentary data were available to the researcher. Because the records are considered private, access 
was gained after obtaining the consent of the parties involved. The data collection used, the length of 
time devoted to data collection on site, and the use of multiple sources of evidence contributed to a 
better understanding of the context under which teaching took place. 

The first author gathered the data, using traditional ways for validating her observations. She took care 
to use more than one medium--from observation, interviews, and document review. Data collection 
resulted in multiple statements, testimony, documents, and observations. Data analysis in this study, as in 
most qualitative studies, commenced as data collection continued. Throughout the study, data analysis 
helped to redefine the issues. Field note analysis was qualitative. To organize the data in a form that 
facilitates analysis and interpretation, the researcher used a thematic approach. The researchers analyzed 
her field notes using the key questions. She showed her processed notes to the participants and 
confirmed the accuracy of quotes and descriptions of what she quoted about them. 


1 In order to ensure confidentiality pseudonyms have been used to replace the names of the departments, faculty and department head involved in this 
study. Some events have also been presented in a way to diminish recognition. The study includes only information seen likely to understanding the 
cases. 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert £ Stake 


4. Findings 


Next is a description of the case study findings. First, we present a brief description of the case, followed 
by the source of evaluation feedback received by the instructor. Then comes the analysis of the utility of 
these sources of feedback for instructional improvement. 


4.1 . The case and its teaching context 


George Alderman was a senior professor with twenty years of experience. Fie obtained his Ph.D. in the 
early 70s from a prestigious university in the Eastern part of the U.S.A., and obtained his bachelor's 
degree in Mathematics from a prestigious Institute of Technology. Since before 1980, George had worked 
for his present university's Practical College. Fie usually had taught statistics-related courses, particularly 
ones required for undergraduate students. 

George's university had been using a campus-wide cafeteria style evaluation system since 1967. It used 
student ratings as one source for evaluating college instruction. The university required all assistants and 
associate professors to submit their evaluation rating results every semester and for every course (Ory & 
Wieties, 1991). All evaluation survey forms included two "global items" and a set of specific items to 
evaluate instruction. The two global items were used for summative purposes and the set of specific 
items for instructional improvement. Many faculty members had the option to select their own specific 
rating items and/or to use departmentally-selected core items. Instructors and departments selected their 
items from a catalog of more than 400 items. (Ory & Wieties, 1991). 

During an interview with the Department Flead, he talked about how much they valued teaching. Fie 
added that they reviewed their faculty ratings in comparisons across campus. Student ratings' results 
were provided to administrators for making decisions about promotion, tenure and teaching awards, as 
well as for providing instructors with feedback about their teaching. It was expected that faculty members 
would use this information for improvement. If they required help they could go to the Division of 
Instructional Development. 

At the time of this study, the university was reviewing the evaluation system as one indicator of 
institutional assessment, seeking more information about the use of evaluation results and their impact 
on instruction at individual and departmental levels. 

I met George through the Division of Instructional Development on campus. Fie had been in contact with 
this division for several semesters. Since he had received low ratings on his teaching, he went to this 
office to receive help. 


4.2. George's Class 


George was teaching class twice a week. One of the class sessions started at 1:00 pm and the other at 
3:00 pm. Flis class took place in a classroom located in a major building of the campus. The room had 
good illumination with capacity for 45 students. The room was large but not deep. There was little space 
for students to interact with each other. Student seats were arranged in rows facing the instructor's desk. 

George's style of teaching is briefly summarized below: 

George arrives early into the classroom. He usually uses transparencies during his lectures and 
provides handouts for his students. While George is explaining, his students take notes. During 
the lecture George uses various examples to illustrate the main concepts. He checks for 
understanding and asks for answers to the problems he is presenting. George 's pace is smooth. 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


He talks slowly, allowing students to take notes. The pitch of his voice is uniform, for some 
monotonous, when the class takes place after lunch. 

On one occasion / find two students resting heads on desks as if sleeping. They return to 
attention when George uses a joke to illustrate the concept that he is explaining. The class 
routine follows a similar pattern. First, George checks role and returns assignments to his 
students. Then, he begins the lecture using the overhead transparencies. George asks students 
questions while he teaches. The students usually take notes. Sometimes, after George has 
finished explaining, the students work in teams solving a problem. 

George traditionally received low to moderate ratings by the students. His course had a poor reputation 
according to the students. 

In earlier years, George taught the same class each term to all who enrolled. The students 
gave him and the course low ratings. Then the Department Head divided the students 
among three instructors, each of whom then taught two classes, 45 students each, meeting 
twice a week. After one semester, one of the instructors obtained high ratings for his 
teaching. George and the other man got low ratings. George sought help from the Division 
of Instructional Development. His peers chose to work together separately. 

A semester later, only George was rated low. His ratings actually went down, partly because he called for 
student teamwork, with each student grading each other's participation. One of George's students 
formally charged him with "capricious grading." The Department Head sent George a letter asking him to 
find a way to improve. 2 


4.3. Feedback sources 


Next a description of the main sources of feedback that George received for improving his teaching: 
student ratings, Department Head, peers and the instructional specialist. 


4.3.1 . Students 


Analysis of the student ratings on evaluation forms of George's class during the two years studied 
indicated that he received low to moderate ratings in relation to the campus norm. Although invited to, 
students seldom wrote comments on the back of the forms, comments that George might use to learn 
more about his strengths and weaknesses as an instructor. 

During the semester that George began to use more teamwork, he asked his students to rate each other's 
participation in the teamwork activities. That semester he received the lowest ratings ever. On that 
occasion, some students wrote on the evaluation form that they disliked the teamwork activities. The 
following semester, George ratings began to improve. 

To obtain more information for improving his teaching, George then asked his students to write about his 
teaching strengths and weaknesses, as well as about suggestions for improving. It was noted that George 
was teaching a required course for freshmen and sophomore students. The course was part of a general 


2 Frank Edwards, one of George’s peers, said “In general, this course, having now been taught by a number of different faculty members, 
does not receive good ratings. Since the course is required and is mathematically oriented, ratings are not typically as high as in other 
courses. In most other courses, students have some latitude in responding to a particular assignment. More than one response might be 
acceptable. In an analytically oriented course like this, there is much less latitude. An answer is usually either right or wrong. There are 
fewer shades of gray.” 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


education curriculum. Some students did not have the required background for his course. In addition, 
there were students who indicated they had had negative perceptions about the course before enrolling. 
They indicated that they registered for the course because it was a requirement for graduation. It is 
important to note that the literature on student ratings indicates that students tend to grade required 
courses lower than electives (Braskamp y Ory, 1994; Stake & Cisneros-Cohernour, 2004). 

During a focus group with some of George's students, majoring in liberal arts (e.g., in History and 
Marketing) expressed a negative perception about the course because they lacked course prerequisites. 
During that semester, George asked students to provide him with feedback anonymously. Student 
comments about the strengths and weaknesses of George's teaching included: 

a) Strengths: 

■ He uses relevant examples in the class 

■ Good use of questioning 

■ Provided clear "hints" on how to do the homework 

■ Was available 

■ Helpfulness 

■ Excellent handouts 

■ Well prepared for the class 

■ Very well organized 

■ Fairly thorough in describing each problem 

■ His exams are fair, yet challenging 

■ Adequate coverage of content in the exams 

■ Excellent pace 

■ Good at explaining 

■ The text is written well and easily followed 

■ Solid knowledge and command over the material and it shows in his teaching 

b) Weaknesses: 

■ Sometimes he covers too much detail 

■ Need to practice more of the problems that will be in the exam 

■ Some problems need more explanation and more detail 

■ Keep repeating examples "until we get it" 

■ He teach at a slow pace 

■ He needs to teach slow, so all the students can understand 

■ The text is not always easy to follow 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


■ He is good at explaining 
c) Suggestions 

■ Update his homepage 

■ "Teach to the text" 

■ "Teach for the exam" 

■ Put slides in the web before the sessions 

■ Cover more examples than the ones included in the book 

■ Do not cover anything not in the textbook 

■ Be sure you do not teach over "the head of the students" 

■ Teach more content in a detailed form. 

Some of these comments were about teaching style, the way in which George communicated with 
students, and about some practical suggestions for teaching. Most suggestions were on a teacher- 
centered approach. George thought that his student comments were not entirely consistent, so he 
selected what he considered he could change to improve his teaching. Before making any changes, he 
consulted with Alice, the instructional specialist. 

During classroom observations, students were using George's class materials, taking notes and applying 
the concepts while solving math problems. 


4.3.2. George's department head 


In interviews, the Head spoke of a need for improvement of teaching. She acknowledged she was not 
providing faculty members with feedback on instruction nor creating mechanisms to support teaching: 

"Our department reviews the ratings. We pay attention when a course receives a low rating over 
time. We encourage faculty to improve their ratings or look for the help they need in order to 
improve. Our faculty members usually improve their ratings overtime. " 


4.3.3. Peers 


Two instructors presently taught the same course as George. One of them was Frank Edwards, a faculty 
member in his second year of tenure. The other instructor was Will Wilson, a tenured professor with 
twenty years of experience like George. During interviews, Wilson indicated that he had worked with 
George in the past and attempted to help him in improving his teaching. He said: 

George is an honest professor. He is the kind of instructor that says things directly. He doesn't know 
how to He; if a student is not doing well in his course George doesn 't tell a white lie. He honestly tells 
his students how well they are doing in the course. Some students do not value this kind of behavior 
on the side of the professors. / think this negatively influences his student ratings. 

Will Wilson added that it was very important for instructors to be careful in the way they communicate 
with their students: 

/ have found that the way I present information to my students can influence my ratings. It is better 
for me to tell them that / am using extra credit quizzes than telling them that we will have a weekly 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


exam in the class. Some professors can use pop quizzes and tell the students that they are extra- 
credit tests but this is not always possible for the entire faculty. Being careful in how you 
communicate to them and selecting words that make tests look like rewards have nothing to do with 
learning or teaching but they have a secondary effect: "A happy student is a good student ". This is 
important when he rates your teaching. 

He added that after observing George's class, he did not find a big difference between George's teaching 
and his own. 

George's other peer, Frank Edwards, said that he had worked with Wilson in the planning of the course 
but had not worked with George. He knew George liked to work independently. 


4.3.4. The instructional specialist 


For two years, George received feedback from Alice, a consultant from the campus Division of 
Instructional Development. He had voluntarily requested help for improving his teaching. Alice 
commented that George often received compliments from his students for being a caring, knowledgeable 
and fair instructor, also that he was accessible. She added that her work at that moment was to help 
George find ways to improve his teaching as well as his ratings: 

We know students like teamwork, so he continues adding some teamwork activities to his class. We 
also suggested him to keep the lights on during his class because students come to class after lunch. 
George' voice is so smooth that it can sound monotonous especially at a one o' dock lecture. We 
advised him to use pauses to help him with this problem. George and / observed one of his peers 
teaching the same class and we advised George to ask more questions to involve the students more 
in the lecture. Finally, we suggested that he use early feedback in the semester to learn how students 
perceive his teaching. George is improving his communication skills and this is being reflected on his 
ratings. 

The next semester George followed Alice's advice of including more two-person teamwork activities 
during his classes. That was when he encouraged students to rate each other's participation in class. 
Several students were upset because most Department faculty members granted credit for class 
participation based on class attendance. As indicted earlier, one student formally accused George of 
capricious grading. At the end of that semester George ratings were very low. His Department Head sent 
a letter requesting him to improve his ratings. 

The situation did not discourage George. He made more changes. He continued using teamwork 
activities, giving handouts to his students, collecting early feedback on his teaching, and increasing the 
use of questioning in his class. 

Alice said that in her opinion George was a person who liked to make small changes when these did not 
conflict with his teaching philosophy. She also mentioned that George had changed gradually over two 
years. She added that change in teaching could be expected to be a gradual process and that one 
semester was a very short period of time to see any real change. 


4.4. Usefulness of the feedback 


During interviews with George and his peers, it was clear that in that Department student ratings were 
the official source of feedback. The Department Head had a positive opinion of this source of information: 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
Study 

Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


We would like to use various sources such as alumni or peers to evaluate instruction in addition 
to current students but this is not possible. We use students because they are accessible. Using 
students is cost-effective. We also believe that they have the capacity to judge instructional 
quality. A good teacher has a good relationship with his students and satisfies their learning 
needs. A good teacher receives good ratings. 

Unlike the Department Head, George's colleague Frank Edwards said: 

/ do not consider student ratings to be a good measure of teaching effectiveness, i 
advocate the use of classroom visitations by peer faculty. More senior faculty could 
work with junior faculty. Not only would this increase the rate at which junior 
professors improve their teaching skills, but we would also have more reliable feedback 
regarding teaching effectiveness. 

Will. Wilson, George's other co-teacher, added: 

On at least four occasions i have asked a colleague to sit in my class and provide me with 
feedback. Sometimes the feedback from a peer is productive; sometimes it is not. My 
experience is that the feedback from a peer is more useful when it is provided in private (if 
your department does not know the information). 

Frank Edwards went further: 

in this department, a formal mentoring program does not exist, it is quite common, 
however, for informal mentoring, where one faculty member helps another, to take 
place. My department is trying to do something like this. However, classroom 
observations are quite time consuming. Since teaching is still not rewarded to the 
extent that research is, many faculty members fee i that it is not in the best interest to do 
this. 

And George said: 

The feedback from a colleague may work if several professors teach the same subject, they 
observe each other classes, and then they have an informal conversation. But this needs to 
be provided as consultation, not with professors writing reports for the administration. 

The danger i see of having several professors providing feedback is that it may be that different 
philosophies of teaching and personality conflicts could influence the feedback provided by 
peers. For example, if two professors have different teaching styles or personalities they may also 
have different ideas about teaching and preferred teaching methods, it could also be a potential 
problem if the professors do not agree in their views of teaching and the students' role. For 
example, a professor may prefer 'open -book exams' whereas the others do not support this type 
of examination form. 

George added that he preferred feedback from an external observer. 

Personally, i prefer to receive advice from people outside the department. Students usually 
provide little feedback that can be used for instructional improvement. When they make a 
suggestion about the class, i look at their comments and try to respond to them when they are 
appropriate for improving the class. However, most of the time they don 't make any comments, i 


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Revista^^ Iberoamericana 

de Evaluacion ^^Educativa 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
Study 

Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert £ Stake 


consider the instructional specialists the only source of meaningful feedback to improve my 
teaching. 


5. Conclusions 


The case study focused on a professor trying to improve his teaching. He worked with feedback from his 
students, peers and an instructional specialist. His Department Head used only student ratings as an 
official source of feedback. Concentrating on this single source made it difficult for him to improve the 
quality of his teaching. 

These student evaluation findings did not take into consideration the meaning of the scores in context 
nor that student evaluations can negatively be influenced by course characteristics 3 , the lack of student 
interest and prerequisites, the way the student questionnaire is administered, the instructor, the students, 
instruments, as well as the workload and the level of depth of the course coverage (Brodie, 1998; Ryan et 
ai, 1980). 

Student ratings were especially problematic because they were used for multiple purposes. The literature 
on faculty evaluation clearly holds that evaluation purposes should not mix. Haskell (1997), for example 
states that the use of student ratings for both formative and summative purposes can lead to misuse. It 
can result in violation of the instructor's academic freedom and diminishing the quality of teaching. 

In George's case, there were two main tradeoffs that result from this decision. The first one was that 
the emphasis on student ratings might discourage faculty members from innovative teaching. George 
experienced this problem when he began to introduce changes in his teaching. His low ratings on 
teaching were used to deny a salary increase the year that he obtained his lowest ratings. 

George said that this problem could be solved if the department head were willing to allow the 
professor to experiment with a new practice without reviewing the ratings at least for a year. This 
suggestion, however, required the willingness of the department administration. If department 
leaders are not aware of the complexities of changes in teaching, they are unlikely to maximize 
improvements for their weaker teachers. 

The second trade-off was the pressure for homogeneity as the department equated student ratings to 
effective teaching. George perceived that equating good teaching with a single numerical score could 
result in limiting a professor's academic freedom. Since he had tenure he had certain freedom to make 
changes in his teaching. Unfortunately, other faculty members may not have the same freedom as George 
in resisting the pressures for standardization. Untenured professors who work in departments that follow 
the same policies as George's department may feel their academic freedom restricted. 

But especially, using only student ratings can make instructors focus too much on improving scores 
rather than reflecting upon and improving the teaching itself. Pleasing students is not the only way of 
teaching effectively. 

The professors who participated in the study were concerned about the meaning that students gave 
to the construct of good teaching. As we look at the informal feedback that George received from his 


3 Esto es, los cursos obligatorios tienden a recibir menorpuntaje por parte de los estudia ntes que los cursos optativos. 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


students, we observed that they sometimes had contradictory views. Some wanted more 
redundancy, some less. Some wanted topics restricted to the textbook, some wanted the instructor's 
personal experience. They are experts in what they want but not in what others should have. Their 
suggestions focused on teaching style, favoring a teacher-centered type of instruction, seldom 
indicating a need for how they could work harder. 

Will Wilson, George's associate, said: 

My student ratings change depending on the group. A group may give me 4 or 4.5 points or even 
5 points on the scale from i to 5. i occasionally change what i teach. One problem with the 
feedback from the ratings is that i do not know what i did wrong. Even ifi teach the same course 
again there is no guarantee that i would obtain the same ratings even teaching the class the 
same way. 

Wilson identified the causality issue related to the weight given to the ratings by the department: 

The emphasis on the ratings as synonymous of instructional effectiveness could lead faculty 
to find only ways to improve their ratings, in the last new faculty orientation that i attended, 
we were advised not to give the questionnaires at the same time when we give a test to the 
students because this could influence the ratings in a negative way. This seems to be 
evidence of how faculties learn to manipulate the ratings. 

Wilson added that students prefer some courses over others, influencing the ratings. So, when he has 
obtained low ratings in a course, he said he moves to another course, one that he knows is liked by his 
students: 

/ have a repertoire of courses that i teach, if my ratings do not improve in a course, i move to 
another course that i know i can teach better, i have the freedom to do this (change to another 
course if my ratings are low), but not everybody can do this. 

The professors restated the advantages and disadvantages of feedback from peers, and added that 
different professors may prefer different types of feedback for improving their teaching. So, what works 
for some may not work for all. 

Finally, the case study showed that in spite of more than sixty years of research, the evaluation of 
teaching continues largely to be a responsibility of the individual instructor. Few faculty members enjoy a 
community of practice, that is, a group of professionals, informally united, exposed to common problems, 
searching for common solutions and a source of knowledge of teaching to share with each other 
(Johnson-Lenz y Johnson-Lenz, 1 998; Stake y Cisneros-Cohernour, 2004). 


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Using Evaluation Results for Improving Teaching Practice: A Research Case 
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Edith J. Cisneros-Cohernour and Robert E. Stake 


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